This summer I have had a burning fascination with hot chicken. Every time I would see this southern delicacy either in, or on the cover, of a national food magazine, I would think: “THAT sounds amazing.” My mouth would water just thinking about its crunchy, yet juicy, red-hot spicy goodness. Seeing that fried chicken was the dish “du jour” last summer, it only makes sense that its spicy little sister, hot chicken, would take a turn in the spotlight this summer. So, I decided to I had to scheme a way to get some into my mouth, before the “summer of hot chicken” drew to a close.
For those of you unfamiliar, hot chicken is basically spicy fried chicken. It starts by marinating chicken pieces in a lethal combination of buttermilk and hot sauce. Next, a paste is made from mixing one-part lard, to three-parts cayenne pepper. The paste is then smeared all over the marinated chicken before it is dredged in flour and fried. The more paste that it added to the chicken, the hotter it will be. Once the chicken is fried, then it is doused again with a liquid version of lard and cayenne and served on a couple of pieces of white bread with some dill pickles on top. The presentation of the hot chicken on the white bread and pickles is considered a mandatory part of enjoying this specialty, as the chicken grease, sauce and juices runs down onto the bread as you eat it, which you then in turn eat as a part of your meal. Hot chicken on white bread is a gift that keeps on giving.
Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in Nashville is credited for inventing this type of fried chicken that hurts so good. The legend has it that hot chicken was invented when the great uncle, of the owner of Prince’s, had stayed out all night long. When he got home, his lady friend, none too happy about his night out, carousing, decided to get her revenge by dousing his breakfast of fried chicken with hot sauce before serving it to him. He ate it, and liked it, and Prince’s Hot Chicken was born. I hear that story, and all I can think is, this woman’s plan backfired. There is no incentive for him to stop carousing, if his woman is fixing him a dish he loves when he gets home. Duh!
In Nashville, there are few things more sacred than hot chicken. It has a following. It is a religion. You must go and worship at its alter when you are traveling through. I discovered, that I am a woman, in need of some religion.
My first thought, was just to try to make it at home. I am a good home cook and enjoy culinary experiments and projects as much as the next gal, but fried chicken was daunting. It is up there in culinary difficulty, next to the perfect pie crust and homemade yeast rolls, in my book. I had never even made plain fried chicken before, and neither had my Mom. So with no cast iron skillet to use, no role models to look up to, and no family recipes to refer, I decided to take a more strategic approach to quench my craving for hot chicken.
I thought, “If hot chicken starts with good fried chicken, then who makes the best fried chicken in Kansas City?” James Beard Award winner, Chef Colby Garrelts and his kitchen crew at Rye, that’s who, came the answer from within. I am clearly not alone in this opinion. Almost from the moment Colby and his wife Megan, opened their new restaurant, Rye, their fried chicken was the most popular dish on the menu.
If I was a woman in need of some “hot chicken” religion, I was about to make Chef Colby Garrelts my preacher man.
So, my “ask strategy” was to play it cool, but apply a bit of social media finesse to my request. I decided to hop on Twitter and generically tweeted something like: “Chef @colbygarrelts is the right person to make and serve hot chicken in KC.” I just threw a little bait into the social media waters, to see if Chef would bite. Within a few minutes, Chef Colby had tweeted back to me saying he had been playing around with it at the restaurant and invited me in to taste his version of “hot chicken” for myself. Yesssss. Mission accomplished.
We arranged to enjoy this hot chicken meal on a Thursday afternoon at Rye. I had been racing from one appointment to the next that day, when I finally hit their doors at 1:30 pm I was famished and ready to have my first “hot chicken” experience.
I was shown to the copper-top Chef’s table in front of the line, facing the kitchen at Rye. Best seat in the house, this is going to be good, I remember thinking. Chef Colby came over and explained that he was going to send out the hot chicken and a few side dishes for me to try. The anticipation was killing me, but I tried not to let it show.
A lovely green salad came out of the cold station at Rye first, as Colby dropped them off he said: “A healthy green salad before you sin.” That was followed by his steak tartare, which as good as it was, I was only able to eat a few bites of in anticipation for the main event.
Finally, I heard Chef yell back into the kitchen to “Fire the hot chicken.” Within minutes, two sizzling platters of hot chicken hit my table, it was the equivalent of a whole chicken that had been broken down, spiced up, fried up and served up. Next, came a dizzying array of side dishes from the kitchen. Green beans, cottage fries, macaroni and cheese and of course thick white Texas Toast and house-made pickles.
The first thing I noticed was that the hot chicken was served crispy and perfectly dry. No hot sauce had been heaped over the chicken as they do at Prince’s in Nashville. Colby quickly explained that he would never serve anything in his restaurant that wasn’t edible.
“I’m not going to fix anything that you would be miserable eating. I’m not about extreme eating challenges,” he said.
Honestly, I appreciated his point of view. It was a revelation. It made me realize, as much as I wanted to try hot chicken, I wasn’t interested in the “how hot can you go” part of this dish. I wanted to taste it, and enjoy it, not win a t-shirt and bragging rights. I wanted it spicy, but not too spicy to eat.
He told us the spice was definitely there, but it was subtle enough heat where “you might actually be able to eat and entire piece of chicken without needing a glass of milk to cool your tastebuds down.” He called his hot chicken more of a Memphis, “dry-style” of hot chicken.
With the explanations out of the way, it was finally time to try this long anticipated specialty. Colby was right, the spice was super subtle and in the background. I finished a thigh crunching through the crispy battered skin and pulling the juicy chicken from the bone. It was like great fried chicken, with just a bit more spice and seasoning. I was trying to decide if I was disappointed. I went for a drumstick next, allowing myself to take the time to think about the chicken and all of its flavors in my mouth. About the time I started in on my second piece of hot chicken, I could feel the slow burn of the cayenne pepper creeping up the back of my throat. By the time I finished the second piece of hot chicken, my lips were burning. THERE was the spice I had been looking for from my hot chicken.
On my third piece of hot chicken, I decided to douse it with Colby’s house-made hot sauce to see if I could replicate the Nashville wet-style of hot chicken. This was probably my favorite piece of all. This piece was less subtle in heat than the others, but not so hot that I could not finish it, which I did, wiping my sticky fingers on my napkin and grinning like a naughty schoolgirl. I had finally tried hot chicken. Maybe not the way Prince’s in Nashville would serve it to me, but the way a local Chef interpreted the dish for me.
Colby’s kitchen crew all filed by me then, some stopping to chat and look at the hot chicken in front of me. As they each stopped by the counter, looking longingly at the embarrassing amount of left over hot chicken I had in front of me, I offered them each a piece. That’s when Colby came over and confessed that he had only made his version of hot chicken for family meal for his staff at Rye. I was eating one of their favorite treats.
I thanked Colby for serving me his version of “hot chicken,” as I asked my waitress for the bill. I asked Colby then, if this was a dish he was planning to put on the menu at Rye. He looked down at my leftovers, and finally shaking his head no, said he didn’t think so. He said he wasn’t sure if his clientele at Rye was looking for hot chicken from him. Finally, he confessed that if enough people came in looking for hot chicken, he might consider adding it to the menu . . . MAYBE.
So, the moral of this story is . . .ask, and ye MIGHT receive, hot chicken in the future at Rye. Amen.
Rye located at The Shops at Mission Farms
10551 Mission Road, Leawood, KS
Open for dinner 7 days a week starting at 5:00 pm, Lunch is served Monday-Friday 11:00 am – 2:30 pm and Happy Hour is from 4:00 pm – 6:00 pm. Brunch is served until 2:30 pm Saturdays and Sundays.